Forgetting the Past in New York

Forgetting the Past in New York

Most of you, we’d guess, are at least notionally familiar with the 1974 Charles Bronson movie “Death Wish.”  Bronson plays a liberal, former war-protesting architect named Paul Kersey, whose wife is murdered and daughter raped by New York City muggers.  After a trip to Arizona, where he does a little range-shooting and then is gifted a handgun, Kersey becomes the ultimate anti-hero, a crime-fighting vigilante – judge, jury, and executioner to street criminals.

You may also know that the movie was a huge and unexpected hit, spawning four sequels and a remake in 2018, starring Bruce Willis.  People loved Paul Kersey.  They loved the guy who gets revenge, who fights back on behalf of those who are unable to do so themselves, and who does to the criminal what the authorities are unable or unwilling to do.

What you may not know – but may have guessed – is that the Hollywood establishment and even the author of the book on which the movie is based absolutely hated the film.  Henry Fonda was offered the lead role and turned it down, calling the whole story “repulsive.”  Brian Garfield, the author of the novel, called the film version “incendiary” and insisted that audiences were having the opposite reaction to the Kersey character than he had intended.  Movie critic Roger Ebert complained that “Death Wish” was “a quasifascist advertisement for urban vigilantes, done up in a slick and exciting action movie” and mocked the very idea that people should be concerned about street violence:

[Attackers] are, by the way, everywhere. Director Michael Winner gives us a New York in the grip of a reign of terror; this doesn’t look like 1974, but like one of those bloody future cities in science-fiction novels about anarchy in the twenty-first century. Literally every shadow holds a mugger; every subway train harbors a killer; the park is a breeding ground for crime. Urban paranoia is one thing, but “Death Wish” is another. If there were really that many muggers in New York, Bronson could hardly have survived long enough to father a daughter, let alone grieve her.

As a resident of Chicago for the entirety of his professional career, we’re not entirely sure what Ebert knew about the streets of New York in 1974, but most contemporary accounts from people who were actually there compare more favorably with the depiction in the movie than that in his review.  The novelist and historian Kevin Baker described life in the rotten Big Apple of the era this way:

Crime, and violent crime, had been increasing rapidly for years. The number of murders in the city had more than doubled over the past decade, from 681 in 1965 to 1,690 in 1975. Car thefts and assaults had also more than doubled in the same period, rapes and burglaries had more than tripled, while robberies had gone up an astonishing tenfold.

It’s difficult to convey just how precarious, and paranoid, life in New York felt around that time. Signs everywhere warned you to mind your valuables, and to keep neck chains or other jewellery tucked away while on the subway. You became alert to where anyone else might be in relation to you, augmented by quick looks over your shoulder that came to seem entirely natural.

I knew few people who had been mugged or worse, but everyone I knew had suffered the violation of a home break-in. Worst was the idea that anything could happen, anywhere, at anytime. Female colleagues working in midtown routinely found their handbags had somehow been rifled during lunch hours, their credit cards and wallets gone….

There was a pervasive sense that the social order was breaking down. Most subway trains were filthy, covered in graffiti inside and out. Often only one – and sometimes no – carriage door would open when they pulled into a station, and in summer they were “cooled” only by the methodical sweep of a begrimed metal fan that just pushed the sordid air about. The trains ran late, and were always crowded; their denizens included chain-snatchers, raggedy buskers and countless beggars, including at least two legless individuals, manoeuvring with remarkable agility between the cars on their wheeled boards.

The roads were in no better condition. Public restrooms were almost non-existent; dangerous and dirty when they were available at all. Men could often be seen pissing in the gutter down side-streets. Times Square’s venerable old theatres and spectacular movie palaces were torn down for office buildings or allowed to slowly rot away, showing scratchy prints of cheesy second-run films or pornography, which any casual visitor might have thought was the city’s leading industry….

Vandalism was incessant, with the expectation that anything not firmly bolted to the ground and covered in some protective coating would be stolen, broken, graffitied, spat on, pissed on, set on fire, used as a shelter, or tossed on to the subway tracks. Public mirrors (in reality, polished metal) were strategically placed by subway staircases so you could glimpse any lurking assailants.

Communities in each of the city’s boroughs were in advanced states of decay. Neighbourhoods, such as East New York or Brownsville in Brooklyn, were regularly compared to Dresden after the second world war. The Bronx, which had been a bastion of desirable upper-middle-class living until the mid-60s, was now burning nightly; once-magnificent apartment houses going up in flames lit by junkies or landlords looking to dispose of buildings they could no longer let or maintain.

Today, people tend to see Rudy Giuliani as the weird Trump sycophant with shoe polish streaming down his face at bizarre press conferences.  They forget that he – with assists from William Bratton, George L. Kelling, and James Q. Wilson – saved New York City from itself and restored it to its former glory.  They also forget that even restored glory can be fleeting.

On Monday, a 30-year-old homeless man and “Michael Jackson imitator” named Jordan Neely died in an altercation on a northbound F train in the New York City subway system.  He had been “acting erratically” and, according to witnesses, “aggressively,” and was, therefore, restrained by a 24-year-old Marine.  Video of the incident shows that the Marine placed Neely in a rear-naked choke hold, which is supposed to be a “blood choke” that causes momentary loss of consciousness, but which, if performed incorrectly, can strangulate its victim.  That appears to be what happened in this case.  Some are hailing the Marine as a hero, while others – including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – have called him a “murderer.”

We don’t know much more about the situation, but we do know that restraining someone with a choke-hold is exceptionally dangerous – for the reasons noted above.  We also know that one man is dead and another man is all but certainly going to have his life ruined (whether he is charged criminally or not).  And the cause of these twin tragedies is a political class in New York that sees the 1970s and the 1980s as “the good old days.”  As The New York Daily News noted, “Neely has a documented mental health history with the NYPD, had been arrested more than 40 times and was a suspect in a 2021 assault, authorities said.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s absof***inglutely ridiculous.  Neely’s defenders say that he “didn’t deserve to die” for being hungry and mentally ill.  This is inarguably true.  The question, of course, is who deserves the bulk of the blame for his death?  Is it the Marine who tried to stop him from possibly assaulting other subway riders?  Or the politicians of New York City and New York state, who allowed conditions in the city to deteriorate to the point where subway riders feel they are perpetually endangered by street crime and actually are endangered by mentally ill people wandering the streets after 40 PREVIOUS ARRESTS?  As we said, we don’t know the details and are, thus, not willing to absolve the Marine of wrongdoing (especially knowing the dangers inherent in the hold he used).  Regardless of his culpability, however, government officials deserve a huge chunk of the blame.  They let this happen.  They enabled this to happen.  They encouraged this to happen.

It is, we suppose, a cliched cop-out at this point to revert to Santayana and his warning that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.  But it’s also accurate.  If the government is too ideologically blinkered to keep people safe in the city, the people will do it themselves.  Paul Kersey was a folk hero, after all, in spite of the ruling class’s efforts to portray him as the opposite.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.